"Where Women Are Empowered"
A Project Of
The Women's Leadership Institute
with funding from
The North Carolina Humanities Council
THE BENNETT COLLEGE
SOCIAL JUSTICE LECTURE SERIES
Dedicated to Willa Beatrice Player
for having the courage to say
'Bennett College is a liberal arts college where
freedom rings. So Martin Luther King, Jr.
can speak here."
Edited by" .^y
Lea E. Williams, Ed.D.
Women's Leadership Institute
Copyright © 2000 by Bennett College
Table of Contents
Letter from the President vii
Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Room in the Inn"
February 11, 1958
C. Eric Lincoln 25
"Come Back, Martin Luther King"
January 18, 1981
Digitized by the Internet Archive
in 2012 with funding from
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil
We gratefully acknowledge Johnson
Adefila, Ph.D., associate professor
and coordinator of the Historv'
Program, and Linda Beatrice Brown, Ph.D.,
Willa B. Player Distinguished Professor of
Humanities, for reading and commenting on the
manuscript. We also thank Paula Quick Hall,
Ph.D., former associate professor and chair of
the Political Science Department, and Violet
Baffour, a political science major, Class of '00,
for reviewing various speeches and offering
critical comments. In addition, we appreciate the
assistance of past and present staff of the Holgate
Library, who searched the archives for speeches
and related materials. This publication was made
possible by a grant from the North Carolina
Humanities Council. We thank the council for
Founders Day Vesper
October 15, 2000
We proudly present the second volume of The Bennett College Social
Justice Lecture Series. The initial volume grew out of the sixtieth-year
celebration of the 1937 student-led boycott of movie theaters in
downtown Greensboro . The highlight of this volume is the speech given
by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel on
February 11,1 958 , a few months after he led the successful Montgomery
Dr. King's visit to Greensboro was very controversial. Even though King
preached nonviolence and practiced passive resistance, many
conservatives in the community viewed him as a rabble-rouser. His
anticipated presence occasioned irrational fear and suspicion in some
quarters. While the African American community eagerly awaited his
coming, there was concern about the heightened racial tensions. And so,
as the date drew near, it proved difficult to secure a place to hold the mass
meeting at which Dr. King would speak.
Into this vaaelstrom of controversy stepped Dr. Willa Beatrice Player, the
president and first female leader of Bennett College. Dr. Player invited
Martin Luther King to speak on our campus. This courageous act was a
glorious moment in the history of Bennett College, an institution that
prides itself on activism in pursuit of social justice . Dr. Player lengthened
the long shadow of social activism and burnished further the legacy of "a
liberal arts college where freedom rings." Fortunately for succeeding
generations, the King speech was captured on reel-to-reel tape and has
been re-recorded on cassette.
Some twenty 'three years after l^artin Luther Kings visit to Bennett, C.
Eric Lincoln, a professor at Duke University, spoke at the college.
Lincoln, a renowned scholar of black religious life who died earlier this
year, echoed many of the social justice themes so familiar to Dr. Kings
audience. Standing in the place where Martin Luther King stood, Lincoln
wondered whether two centuries after the founding of our nation, "we[,]
who now stand trembling in the room they left[,] search frantically for
some clue that the legacy bequeathed to us is possible." Another twenty
years have passed since Lincoln's speech, and the search for justice and
equality goes oil.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and C. Eric Lincoln leave us with many
unanswered questions, but also with a legacy of brilliant discourse that
continues to inspire us in our search for answers.
iloria R. Scott, Ph.D.
THE BENNETT COLLEGE
SOCIAL JUSTICE LECTURE SERIES
"S^^d^ ~'ir""^.*eS23.^* JiJAS:;^^!'?"
y jW Montgomery' bus boycott ended, an overflow crowd
^ ^1^, ^^ poured into Annie Memer Pfeiffer Chapel on the
campus of Bennett College to welcome Dr. Martm Luther King,
For those who believe in freedom, Martin Luther King's was one
of the most eloquent voices for civil rights and social justice in
the twentieth century. Having led a successful boycott to
desegregate the city buses. King focused national attention on a
social protest movement based on passive resistance and
nonviolence. For many, King symbolized that movement. Yet,
on that February evening in Greensboro, King reminded the
enthralled audience that, "Martin Luther King would not even
be mentioned in history if there had not been a Rosa Parks and
50,000 humble people who had the courage to stand up and
who said in their hearts that we've had enough."
In that period of our nation's history, African Americans who dared
to advocate for their constitutionally guaranteed rights risked harsh
reprisals, often with deadly consequences. Well into the twentieth
century, blacks were still being lynched at the hands of Ku Klux
Klansmen and vigilante mobs. But, in 1954 blacks gained a victory
for desegregation when the Supreme Court in its unanimous
decision (Brown v. Board of Education) dismantled the dual public
school system in the South. At the time, it seemed that well-
targeted lawsuits, combined with carefully executed direct-action
campaigns, would provide the thin wedge that blacks could use to
pry open the door of equality.
In the mid-50s large cracks began appearing in the mask of quiet
resignation and passive acceptance blacks wore to hide the
resentment they felt against the petty slights and daily humiliations
of life as second-class citizens. There was a mounting determination
to rebel against the status quo. The lines from Paul Laurence
Dunbar's well-known poem, "We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes," captured the tired charade
blacks were no longer willing to play. It was this undercurrent of
discontent that finally erupted and mobilized blacks.
Fannie Lou Hamer expressed the sentiments of many blacks when
she said in her eloquently colloquial way: "I knew things was bad
wrong and I used to think, 'Let me have a chance, and whatever this
is that's wrong in Mississippi, I'm gonna do some thin' about it.' "'
Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat to a white man was the spark
that ignited black and white determination to do something about
it. The movement that resulted gave Fannie Lou Hamer her voice
and nurtured Martin Luther King, Jr. into greatness.
King's invitation to visit Greensboro came from local leaders of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Edward Edmonds, president of the local NAACP chapter, had
fought to desegregate the city's public schools. Cone Hospital, and
the all-white city swimming pool. For his troubles, the Klan burned
a cross at his home on the campus of Bennett College where he
taught sociology. In addition, Edmonds, who was also a Methodist
minister, was dismissed as director of the Wesley Foundation at
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
According to Dr. Edmonds, Warmoth Gibbs, president of the
university, fired him because his activism was too controversial."
Later, however, Gibbs surprised his white superiors by refusing to
rein in A&T students participating in the lunch counter sit-ins in
Dr. King's visit was almost called oft because a venue proved diffi-
cult to find. Fearing economic reprisals from white officials, admin-
istrators at North Carolina A&T and the black public schools were
understandably reluctant to host him. Although local black church-
es did not depend on the white community for financial support,
church leaders would certainly want to avoid alienating city leaders.
Any decision that would impact the church or its congregation,
even indirectly, had to be carefully weighed. Apparently, the weight
of that decision stalled the ministers.
While Greensboro's church leaders hesitated, Willa Beatrice Player,
then two years into her presidency at Bennett College, offered the
Annie Memer Pfeiffer Chapel. King's visit, about to be cancelled,
was rescued. In order to accommodate the throngs anticipated, the
college wired sound to the Little Theatre and other buildings. As
expected, every seat was taken.
Hosting Dr. King was a risky business even though Bennett College
was a private institution. After all, the college benefited from the
goodwill and largess of white philanthropists. The names of
prominent families inscribed on campus buildings - for example,
Annie Memer Pfeiffer Chapel, Barge Hall, and Reynolds Hall -
attested to the sustained generosity of that support. Lyman Bennett,
the college's first benefactor and namesake, gave the first ten
thousand dollars toward the purchase of land for the college and to
erect a building that housed the classrooms; it also served as a
dormitory. These benefactors were subject to community pressures
even when they, like Lyman Bennett, were not residents of the area.
Viewed in the context of the late 1950s, when the strictures and
prejudices of the post-Reconstruction South still prevailed, Dr.
Player's offer of the Bennett chapel was certainly a courageous act
and marked a memorable event in the life of the college. Reflecting
over her presidency in a 1993 interview. Dr. Player stated that the
King visit was one of the high points of her career at Bennett."*
The black community in Greensboro was eager to hear Dr. King's
message. Here in the flesh was the young man who had galvanized
the black community to challenge the white power structure in one
of the most virulently racist states in the South. Who was this man
who so quickly ascended to prominence?
Martin Luther King's roots were in the South. Born to a middle-
class family in Atlanta, Georgia, King early on was nudged by his
father toward the ministry. His education at Morehouse College,
Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University introduced
him to the teachings of the great philosophers and pacifists of
western culture - Hegel, Thoreau, Kant, Niebuhr, Tillich, and
Gandhi, among others. In his youth, he had rejected the
emotionalism of the Baptist church; thus, the writings of these
intellectuals appealed to him and profoundly influenced his
Later, during the long days of the Montgomery bus boycott, his
Christian faith deepened. King recounted the moment that gave
him the courage he would need. One night sitting in the kitchen of
his home, feeling despondent and confounded by doubts about the
boycott and his leadership of it. King was at the end of his wits. He
recalled pleading in his heart for guidance and direction. It seemed
at that moment there came into the kitchen "the presence of the
divine," telhng him to "stand up for righteousness, stand up for
truth; and God will be at your side forever."'
This story, whether true or apocryphal, speaks to the origins of
King's faith, a faith that allowed him to lose himself in the struggle
and that sustained him through many difficult moments. Lerone
Bennett, the historian and Ebony magazine journalist, said in his
biography of King, that the Montgomery movement, "changed the
spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., and King, thus transformed, helped
to change the face and the heart of the Negro, of the white man,
and of America.""
King would make many memorable and great speeches in the
decade after his visit to Bennett College: "I Have a Dream" (1963);
"Our God Is Marching Onl (1965); "The Drum Major Instinct"
(1968), and "I See the Promised Land" (1968).' What we hear m
King's 1958 speech, however, is the nascent beginnings of his
oratorical greatness. The speech echoed many of the themes that
would reverberate in his public speaking throughout the next and,
sadly, the last decade of his life. He would perfect his deliver^', using
the rich timbre and familiar cadences of the black Baptist preaching
tradition, a tradition that he inherited from his father and maternal
As with all great orations, the spoken word is so much more
powerful and compelling than any transcription, and so it is with
this speech by Martin Luther King. On the printed page, the
resonance of Dr. King's stentorian voice is lost to the reader. Yet, the
historical significance of the speech is retained. It is significant
because it represents a point on the continuum of King's progression
from a relative neophyte on the national scene to a revered orator
of great stature.
At Bennett College, King spoke for nearly an hour on the theme of
changing race relations in the South and the efficacy of nonviolent
resistance. Characteristically, he used this occasion to teach as well
as to inspire. In the early days of the movement, most audiences
were unfamiliar with the philosophical tenets of nonviolent
resistance. Once the concept was understood, many were still, quite
frankly, skeptical about its applicability and effectiveness. The
debate about the best methods to use would continue throughout
However, in the Bennett chapel. King spoke to an audience on the
cusp of a revolution. This triumphant young minister, who
preached Judeo-Christian precepts and embraced a nonviolent,
pacifist ideology, had come straight from the front lines of black
civil disobedience. His listeners that night yearned to be inspired
because the kind of bold resistance demonstrated in Montgomery,
Alabama, was also simmering in Greensboro, as it was throughout
the South. Thus, King's message was manna for the soul.
On that Tuesday evening, King's was an ascending star. The
miscalculation of trying to transport southern strategies to northern
cities where racial discrimination assumed a more subtly
sophisticated form was some years away, as were the suspicions and
uncertainties engendered by King's opposition to the war in
Vietnam and espousal of the causes of poor people. Also at bay was
exposure of the moral ambiguities between the public man and the
private self as revealed by Federal Bureau of Investigation wiretaps
of King's sexual dalliances. King had yet to shoulder these crosses.
This was the dawn of breaking day with its hopeful promises and
The seeds sown that night would germinate in fertile soil as
Greensboro activists chipped away at the walls of segregation. On
February 1, 1960, two years after King's visit, Ezell Blair, Jr.,
Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond sat down
at the all-white lunch counter in the Woolworth's on Elm and
Sycamore streets in downtown Greensboro and politely ordered
lunch. They were refused service, but the sit-in movement had
begun in the South, and it spread rapidly to other southern cities. In
March, at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, students
formalized their voice in the movement by establishing the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A few months later, on July
25, the first blacks ate at the Woolworth's lunch counter in
The 1960s witnessed the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting
Rights bills, which dismantled the last vestiges oi legalized
segregation. A movement that began on a bus in Montgomery- had
been heard in the halls of Congress and around the world. The
moral conscience of that movement, and one ot its most
impassioned voices, was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two decades after King's visit to Greensboro, C. Eric Lincoln (1925-
2000), a prolific scholar and professor of religion and culture at
Duke University, spoke from the same podium. In his speech,
"Come Back, Martin Luther King," Lincoln laments the slow pace
of improving race relations and longs for his friend's presence "to
bring us together again and to revive us in the continuing struggle
toward the realization of what he dreamed about."
Lincoln's speech, included here, makes it painfully clear how deeply
entrenched, pervasive and intractable racial issues were, and are, in
America. The message Lincoln delivered, a quarter century after the
Montgomery bus boycott, acknowledged that discrimination and
prejudices refused to yield to reason, to the pressures of mass resist-
ance, or to legislative mandates. In frustration, Lincoln cries out in
a self-composed poem at the end of his speech: "When shall we
overcome? When shall we overcome?"
A son of the South and a friend of Martin Luther King, C. Eric
Lincoln grew up in humble circumstances in Athens, Alabama. He
worked his way through college and earned undergraduate degrees
from LeMoyne College, now LeMoyne-Owen College, in Memphis,
Tennessee, and the University of Chicago. Added to these were
graduate degrees from Fisk University and Boston University
(M.Ed, and Ph.D.); the latter was also King's alma mater. A bach-
elor's degree in divinity from the University of Chicago defined
Lincoln's lifelong passion for religious studies. Recognized as one of
the nation's foremost scholars of the black church, Lincoln was a
prolific writer. He authored, co-authored or edited twenty-two
books. Among his best-known books are The Black Muslims in
America (1961) and The Black Church in the African- American
Experience (1990). Firmly rooted in black culture and traditions,
Lincoln began his teaching career at Clark College, now Clark
Atlanta University, in Atlanta, a historically black college, and
later held a faculty position at Fisk University, another black insti-
tution. He also taught at Brown University, Union Theological
Seminary, Vassar College, and Columbia University, among others.
Dr. Lincoln retired from Duke University as the William Rand
Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of Religion and Culture.
Well past the height of the civil rights movement, in 1981 when
Lincoln addressed a new generation of Bennett College students, he
reminded his audience about the black experience in America. Just
as Martin Luther King had done before him, C. Eric Lincoln trans-
formed the chapel into a teaching platform and a classroom for
learning. Both King and Lincoln followed in the lineage of chapel
speakers throughout the decades whose messages had hammered
home the importance of social and political activism and urged stu-
dents to engage these issues.
Of course the message to black Americans that we must cultivate
and retain a strong social consciousness is ages old. In his classic
study of race in America, first published in 1903 and titled The Souls
of Black Folk, the distinguished historian, scholar and fighter for
black equality, W. E. B. Du Bois, proclaimed that, "the problem of
the Twentieth Ceiitury is the problem of the color line." Martin
Luther King, Jr. and C. Eric Lincoln took up that cause in their day.
It rests with succeeding generations to continue to struggle with the
freighted and peculiarly complex dilemma of black/white race rela-
tions in America. Fortunately, we have the wise words of King and
Lincoln to inspire us along the way.
Lea E. Williams
'Lea E. Williams, Servants of the People: The 1960s Legacy of African American Leadership (New
York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), p. 159.
'William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle
for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
Williams, Servants of the People.
■"Linda Beatrice Brown, The Long Walk: The Story of the Presidency of Willa B. Player at Bennett
College (Danville, Virginia: McCain Printing Company, Inc., 1998), p. 166.
'David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986).
''Lerone Bennett, "When the Man and the Hour Are Met," in C. Eric Lincoln, ed., Martin
Luther King, Jr.: A Profile, 1970, p. 12.
'James Melvin Washington, ed., / Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World,
Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992).
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: New American Library, 1969), xi.
"ROOM IN THE INN"
Mtirrin Luther King, Jr.
Pastor, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Akihama
Delivered at the Annie Merner Pjeiffer Chapel
February I J, 1958
Ir. [Edward] Edmonds [professor of sociology at Bennett
'College and president oi the Greensboro Chapter ot the
NAACP], Dr. [Charles] Anderson [pastor of Institutional
Baptist Church], members of the Greensboro branch of the
National Association for the Advancement ot Colored People,
ladies, and gentlemen. It is certainly a delightful pleasure for me to
be in the city of Greensboro and to be able to share with you in the
program this evening. I'm ver\- happy to share the platform with
these very distinguished ministers and educators. I'm grateful to my
friend, Rev. Anderson, for those ver^' kind words. And I'm grateful
to Dr. Edmonds, the president of the branch here, for extending the
invitation for me to be here. I'm grateful to him for the courageous
work that he is doing in this community. And the courageous work
that he is doing tor the cause of justice and human dignity.
I'm very happy to bring greetings to you this evening from
Montgomery, Alabama, a city in a state that is known as the Heart
of Dixie. And of course, we're all aware of the fact that Dixie has a
little heart trouble at this time. But the physicians are at work,
seeking to cure this heart condition. And I want you to know that
the people of Montgomery, the Negro citizens of that city, are
deeply grateful to you and to all people of good will, to persons all
over this world, who aided them in the struggle for justice. As we
walked the streets of Montgomery, we realized that we were not
walking alone, but that hundreds and thousands ot people of good
will walked with us. And above all, God walked with us.
Never forget that the Montgomery story is not a story, it's not a
drama with only one actor. But it's a drama with 50,000 actors, each
playing his part amazingly well. And I hope you will never forget
the humble people of that community. You hear a great deal, I
imagine, about a fellow by the name of Martin Luther King. You'll
occasionally read his name, and you see his picture here and there.
But Martin Luther King would not even be mentioned in history if
there had not been a Rosa Parks and 50,000 humble people who had
the courage to stand up and who said in their hearts that we've had
enough. And who somehow came to see that it is ultimately more
honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation, and decided
to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walked the streets of
Montgomery until the surging walls, the sagging walls of bus
segregation were finally crushed by the battering rams of the forces
I was in the Los Angeles airport a few days ago, and we had a little
delay, a slight plane delay. The plane had to be serviced. And I was
standing out near the gate, and it so happened that a man was
standing next to me that worked for one of the airlines. In a few
minutes, we noticed several men running out to that plane. They
started carrying out various functions. Most of them were in
overalls. You could hardly see the color of the overalls, because they
"Room in the Inn'
were greasy and dirty overalls. And that man looked over to me,
and he said, "You know, before that plane can take off, about
twenty-one men have to work on it. They have various functions,
and they do various jobs, but it can't go until those men get to work
and do their jobs." And I looked at them. They were doing various
things, various things.
Then he turned back to me and said, "That group is called the
ground crew." And I started thmkmg that pretty soon that plane
would take off and lift itselt possibly above the clouds, and move on
down, passing the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado, and on down
through the various states, and it would take me successfully home.
And 1 thought about the tact that we hear a great deal about the
pilot and the engineer and the copilot. But we must never forget
that that plane couldn't make its journey without the ground crew.
And the same thing applies in this area of freedom. As we take out
on this mighty flight of freedom, let us never forget the ground crew.
The ground crew. The people who don't make the headlines. The
people who make it possible for the pilot to do his job. Let us never
forget the ground crew. And I bring you greetings trom the humble
people, the ground crew, of Montgomery, Alabama.
But I'm not here this evening to talk about Montgomery. You've
heard a lot about Montgomery, and I've spoken a great deal across
the country' on the Montgomery stor\- and other ministers from
Montgomery' and other citizens of that city. So I'm not going to
burden you with the Montgomery story^ This evening I want to try
to answer a question, a desperate question, a poignant question, that
seems to be on the lips oi people all over this nation. They are
disturbed and they're wondering whether there has been any real
progress in the area of race relations. And I hope I can give some
insights on that question. 1 certainly can't answer the whole
question. 1 can only make a few suggestions here and there. In
accordance, you will have to draw your [own] conclusions.
It seems to me that there are three basic attitudes that one can take
toward the question of progress in the area of race relations. The
first is that of extreme optimism. You know, optimism is a view that
looks on the bright side of things. An extreme optimist would argue
that we have come a long, long way in the area of race relations. He
would point proudly to the strides that have been made in the area
of civil rights over the past few decades. And thus, he would
conclude that the problem is just about solved now, and that we can
sit down comfortably by the wayside and wait on the coming of the
The second view that can be taken is that of extreme pessimism,
and you know, pessimism is a view that looks on the dark side of
things. And so the pessimist in the area of race relations would say
that we've made only minor strides. He would argue that the deep
rumblings of discontent from the South are indicative of the fact
that we have created many more problems than we have solved. He
would say that we are going backwards instead of forwards. He
might even get a little intellectual and seek to show that hovering
over every man is the tragic taint of original sin, and so at bottom,
human nature cannot be changed. He may even turn to the realms
of psychology and seek to show the inflexibility of certain attitudes
once they have been molded. From all of this, the pessimist would
conclude that there can be no progress in the area of race relations.
Now I want you to notice one thing here: That the extreme
optimist and the extreme pessimist agree on at least one point. They
both agree that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race
relations. The extreme optimist says do nothing because integration
is inevitable. The extreme pessimist says do nothing because
integration is impossible.
But there is a third position, that is, a third attitude that one can
take in this area. Namely, the realistic position. The realist in the
area of race relations seeks to combine the truths of two opposites,
"Room in the Inn"
while avoiding the extremes of both. So the reaUst would agree
with the optimist that we have come a long, long way, but he would
go on to balance that by agreeing with the pessimist that we have a
long, long way to go. And it is this realistic position that I would
like to use as a basis of our thinking together this evening on the
question of progress in race relations. We've come a long, long way,
but we have a long, long way to go.
Let us notice first that we've come a long, long way, and I would like
to say first under that particular heading that the Negro himself has
come a long, long way in reevaluating his own intrinsic worth. In
order to illustrate this, a little history is necessary. You will
remember that it was in the year of 1619 that the first slaves landed
on the shores of this nation. And they were brought here from the
soils of Africa. Unlike the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth a year
later, they were brought here against their wills. Throughout
slavery, the Negro was treated in a very inhuman fashion. He was a
thing to be used, not a person to be respected. He was just
something of a depersonalized cog in a vast plantation machine.
The famous Dred Scott decision of 1857 well illustrates the status
of the Negro during slavery, where in this decision the Supreme
Court of the nation said the Negro is not a citizen of this nation; he
is merely property, subject to the dictates of his owner. And this was
the attitude that prevailed. Living under these conditions, many
Negroes lost faith in themselves. Many came to feel that perhaps
they were inferior. So long as the Negro accepted this place
assigned to him, a sort of racial peace was maintained. But it was a
negative peace. It was not true peace. For as I've said on many
occasions, true peace is not merely the absence of some negative
force. It is the presence of some positive force.
One of the white citizens of our community in Montgomery was
talking with me the other day, and he said, "Brother King, the only
thing that hurts me and that concerns me is the fact that for so
many years, we had such peaceful race relations in Montgomery.
We had so much harmony and peace in race relations, and now you
people have come to upset the peace." I thought about it, and I
tried to talk with him sympathetically, calmly. I looked at him and
said, "Well, I guess you're right. We did have peaceful race relations
in Montgomery. But it was a negative peace, in which the Negro
patiently accepted injustice and exploitation and never protested
against it. But we never had real peace in Montgomery. We never
had a positive peace. We had a negative peace, which was merely
the absence of tension, but true peace is the presence of justice and
One day Jesus stood before a group of men of his generation, and I
can imagine that they stood before the Master with that glittering
eye, wanting to hear some good. And Jesus looked at them and said
in no uncertain terms, "I come not to bring peace but a sword."
Jesus didn't mean he came to bring a physical sword. Neither did he
mean he did not come to bring true peace. But what Jesus was
saying was this: That I come not to bring this old negative peace,
which makes for deadening passivity and stagnant complacency. I
come to bring positive peace, and whenever I come, a conflict is
precipitated between the old and the new. Whenever I come, a
division sets in between justice and injustice. Whenever I come,
something happens between the forces of light and the forces of
darkness. 1 come not to bring this old negative peace, which is
merely the absence of tension, but I come to bring a positive peace,
which is the presence of love and brotherhood and the kingdom of
God. And the peace which Jesus talks about is always a positive
So the peace which existed at this particular time in our nation was
a negative peace devoid of any positive means. Then as the years
unfolded, something happened to the Negro. Circumstances made
it necessary for him to travel more. His rural plantation background
gradually gave way to urban industrial life. His cultural life was
gradually rising through the steady decline of crippling illiteracy,
"Room m the Inn'
and even his economic life was rising through the growth of
industry and the power of organized lahor and other agencies.
All of these forces conjoined to cause the Negro to take a new look
at himself. Negro masses all over began to reevaluate themselves,
and the Negro came to feel that he was somebody. His religion
revealed to him that God loves all of his children, and that all men
are made in his image. He came to see that every man, from a base
black to a treble white is significant on God's keyboard. And so he
could not unconsciously cry out with the eloquent poet, "Fleecy
locks and black complexion cannot forfeit nature's claim. Skin may
differ, but affection dwells in black and white the same. Where I so
tall as to reach the pole, or to grasp the ocean at its span, 1 must be
measured by my soul. The mind is the standard of the man."
And with this new sense of dignity and this new self-respect, a new
Negro came into being. And the tensions which we witness in the
South today can be explained in part by the revolutionary change
in the Negro's evaluation of his nation and destiny. And his
determination to struggle, sacrifice, yes, and even die if necessary,
until the walls of segregation have been totally crushed.
This is the meaning, and a part of the meaning of the struggle.
We've come a long, long way since 1619. Not only has the Negro
come a long, long way in reevaluating his own intrinsic worth.
We've come a long, long way in achieving civil rights, and if we are
to be true to the facts, we must admit that. Fifty years ago, twenty-
five years ago, a year hardly passed that numerous Negroes were not
brutally lynched by some vicious mob. Lynchings have about ceased
today. We've come a long, long way.
Fifty years ago, or twenty-five years ago, most of the southern states
had a way of preventing the Negro from becoming a registered voter
through the poll tax. Now the poll tax has been eliminated in all
but four states. We've come a long, long way. Even in achieving the
ballot, we've come a long, long way, and have a long, long way to
go, but we've come a long, long way. At the turn of the century,
there were not many Negro registered voters in the South. By 1948,
that number had leaped to 750,000. By 1952, that number had
leaped to 1,300,000. We've come a long, long way. Even in
economic development, we've come a long, long way, and so today,
the average Negro wage earner makes more, four times more, than
the average Negro wage earner in 1940. The national income of the
Negro now is more than sixteen billion dollars a year, more than the
national income of Canada and more than all of the exports of the
United States. We've come a long, long way.
Not only that. In our generation, we've been able to see the walls
of segregation gradually crumble. Many years ago, we were taken
away into an Egypt of segregation. And it looked like we would
never get out. We were carried there in 1896. The Supreme Court
of this nation in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision established the
doctrine of separate-but-equal as the law of the land, and here we
were caught up in the Egypt of segregation. And every time we tried
to get out, something prevented us. There was always a Moses
crying out in loud and noble terms, "Let our people go." In the
midst of the cry of every Moses, there was a Pharaoh with a
hardened heart, saying, "I will not let these people go." There was
a Red Sea standing before us with discredited [sic] dimensions, and
it looked like we would never get out of Egypt. God always controls
history. He's never asleep on the job. He works at every moment in
history. And there is something about the God that we worship that
can open the Red Sea. And so there came May 17, 1954, and by the
providence of God and the decision from the Supreme Court, the
Red Sea opened, and we were able to get out of Egypt.
Now we aren't in the Promised Land yet. There are Philistines and
Horites and Hittites still ahead to be defeated, but at least we've
conquered Egypt. We've broken loose from the Egypt of
segregation, and we're moving through the wilderness of
"Room m the Inn"
adjustment towards the Promised Land of integration. And we're
going to get in. Now I know that sometimes it looks difficult, and
they're people who are saying we'll never get in. They're the
pessimists. And they come hack to us and they say, "Now, you know,
there are giants over there in that land." And there are many giants
there, giants of vested interests, giants of irrational emotionalism,
giants of economic power structures. But thank God, Caleb and
Joshua have been over, and they have come back with a minority
report, and they tell us that we can possess the land. And this
evening we stand in this moment of our nation's history, facing the
fact that we've come a long, long way since 1!
Now, my friends, I would like to stop here. I really would. This is a
good place to stop. I like to make short speeches. I was telling
somebody yesterday that I'm getting more and more like my good
friend. Dr. Mordecai Johnson. I get to the place where 1 can speak
an hour and a half and two hours. But 1 like to make short speeches.
And I would really like to stop here. I would really love. ..this would
be a wonderful place to stop. It would be a great place to stop. But
I'm afraid that if 1 stop here, I wouldn't be telling the truth. I'd be
stating a fact. You see, a fact is merely the absence of contradiction.
The truth is the presence of coherence. It is the relatedness of facts.
You see, it's a fact that we've come a long, long way. That's a fact,
but it isn't the truth. See, in order to tell the truth, you've got to go
on and put the other part to it. If I stopped at this point, I would
leave you the victims of a dangerous optimism. If I stopped at this
point, I would leave you the victims oi an illusion wrapped in
superficiality, so in order to tell the truth I must move on, and say
to you that we've not only come a long, long way... hut we have a
long, long way to go.
And I will not take the time this evening to go into all of the
problems which we confront. Just to make a general statement to
assure you that we have a long, long way to go. I mentioned the fact
that lynchings have about ceased in our nation, but other things are
happening, just as bad. Oh, we must think of the fact that many
states in our own Southland have risen up in open defiance of the
Supreme Court's decision on desegregation. The legislative halls of
the South ring loud with such words as "interposition" and
"nullification." Not only that. We see existing in our nation many
tones and many instances of physical violence. We see in the
Southland little children who, merely seek[ing] an equal education,
are often beaten and often slapped and often kicked around.
Individuals who merely stand up for the right to live as a first-class
human being often confront bombings and sometimes are brutally
shot down on their feet. We have a long, long way to go.
Even in the area of registration and voting, we have a long, long
way to go. Conniving methods are still being used in many of the
counties in the Deep South to keep Negroes from becoming
registered voters. Often questions are asked, from those technical
questions that even a Ph.D., or the best-trained lawyer can't
answer, to the even more technical question of how many bubbles
do you find in a bar of soap. We have a long, long way to go.
Even in the area of economic justice we have a long, long way to
go. We've come a long, long way, as I just said, but we must still face
the fact that 43 percent of the Negro families of America still make
less than $2,000 a year, while just 17 percent of the white families
of America make less than $2,000; 21 percent of the Negro families
make less than $1,000 a year, while just seven percent of the white
families of America make less than $1,000 a year; 88 percent of the
Negro families of America make less than $5,000 a year, while just
60 percent of the white families of America make less than $5,000
a year. To put it another way, just 12 percent of the Negro families
of America make $5,000 a year or more, while 40 percent of the
white families of America make $5,000 a year or more. So even in
the area of economic justice, we have a long, long way to go.
"Room in the Inn"
And more than anything else, segregation is still a fact in America.
We have a long, long way to go to conquer segregation itself. It still
exists in the South in its glaring and conspicuous form. We still
confront it in the North, in its hidden and subtle form. Now, as I
implied just a few minutes ago, figuratively speaking, Old Man
Segregation is on his deathbed, but history has proven that social
systems have a great last minute breathing power. And the
guardians of the status quo are always on hand with the oxygen
tents to keep the old order alive. And so, segregation is still with us,
and there are those who are resisting at ever^' point to keep this
system of segregation alive. But as we assemble here this evening,
we assemble, I am sure, with the knowledge that if democracy is to
live, segregation must die.
Segregation is a cancer in the body politic, which must be removed
before our democratic health can be realized. We must come to see
the underlying philosophy of segregation is diametrically opposed to
the underlying philosophy of democracy and Christianity, and all
the dialectics of theologians cannot make them lie down together.
Segregation is a blatant evil. It is against even,' thing that the
Christian religion stands for, for it substitutes the hit relationship
for the I:Thou relationship. It relegates the segregated to the status
of a thing, rather than elevat[ing] them to the status of a person.
And there is something deep down within our Christian religion
that says all men are made in the image of God.
There is something deep down within our Christian religion which
cries out across the generations: In Christ there is neither Jew nor
Gentile, bound nor free, male nor female, yes, Negro nor white. But
we're all one in Christ Jesus. There is something deep down m our
faith which says our one Lord God made all men to dwell upon the
face of the earth. There is something in our democratic creed which
says all men are created equal, and I'm endowed by that Creator
with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness. And segregation ignores all of these things;
therefore, it is an evil which must be removed before our
democratic health can be reaUzed.
So the job ahead is to work hard, all people of good will, to remove
this evil which stands in our society. It is hurting us internationally,
and I will not go into that. For as we look at the role and tide of
world opinion, we come to see that the civil rights issue is not some
ephemeral, effervescent domestic issue which can be kicked around
by reactionary politicians. But it is an eternal moral issue, which
may well determine the destiny of our nation in the ideological
struggle with communism. The hour is late. The clock of destiny is
ticking out. We must act now before it is too late. The motor is now
cranked up. We are moving up the highway of freedom toward the
city of equality, and we can't afford to slow up, because our nation
has a date with destiny. We must keep moving.
There are those who are saying, yes, we've got to apply moderation.
We've got to adopt a policy of moderation. Well, if moderation
means moving on towards the goal of justice with wise restraint and
calm reasonableness, then moderation is a great virtue that all men
of good will must seek to achieve in this tense period of transition.
But if moderation means slowing up in the move for justice and
capitulating to the whims and caprices of the guardians of the
deadly status quo, then moderation is a tragic vice, which all men
of good will must condemn. We must keep moving because the hour
is late. Our nation is now on trial.
I want to say to you just a few things that we must do to go this
additional distance. And I want to say a few things that we, as
Negroes, can do. I know that other agencies must be at work.
There's a great job for the federal government to do. I wish I had
time to go into that. There's a great job that the Christian church
must do. I wish I had time to go into that. But we know all too well
that the Christian churches too often have a high blood pressure of
creeds and an anemia of deeds.
"RooTn in the Inn"
We had to face the tragic facts for so long, that Sunday morning
when we stood to sing "In Christ There Is No East Or West," we
stood in the most segregated hour of Christian America. And thank
God we're beginning now to shake the lethargy from our eyes, and
Christian ministers all over the South and all over this nation are
taking stands now. Thank God for that. And the church must
continue to act.
Oh, there're things that white persons of good will can do, both
North and South, and I wish I had time to go into that, because I
believe firmly that there are many more white persons of good will
in our Southland than we're able to see on the surface. There are
some in Montgomery, Alabama. Don't you think all of the white
persons in the South believe in segregation. And then there are
some who believe in segregation. They were brought up under the
system. They were taught that in their school books. They were
taught that by their parents, and it's understandable why they
believe in segregation. But even though they sincerely believe that
integration is wrong, they at least believe in law and order. They
don't believe in physical violence. And I think we have great things
to work on in the Southland. I do not think that the [James O.]
Eastlands [Mississippi senator, 1941-78] and the [Herman]
Talmadges [Georgia senator, 1957-81]. ..voice the sentiment of the
southern white person. I don't think they voice the sentiments of
all. They voice the sentiments of a vocal but small minority. I feel
that a person like Lillian Smith of Georgia [writer sympathetic to
harmonious race relations and author of Strange Fruit, a 1944 novel
about an interracial love affair], [Harry S.] Ashmore of Arkansas [an
editorial journalist], Frank [Porter] Graham of North Carolina
[University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill president 1931-49, who
ran for the North Carolina Senate in 1950 and lost], even Dr. Billy
Graham of North Carolina, and hundreds and thousands of white
persons of good will are voicing the sentiments of millions of white
persons. And so, let us see the road in the white South. And I
believe that there are millions of liberals in our Southland, and I
appeal to them in the name of God, and for the cause of human
dignity, and in the interest of democracy, to join hands and gird
their courage and take a stand now, because this is the hour to do
Above all of that, above and beyond all of that, there are some
things that we must do. And that's what I want to deal with in the
next few minutes before us. Things that we must do to go this
additional distance, if we are to achieve first-class citizenship in this
hour. We must maintain a continual sense of dignity and self-
respect. Let nobody make you feel that you're inferior. Feel
somehow that you are somebody. And although you have to live
under a system which stares you in the face and says, "You are less
than; you're not equal to," live in the midst of that system and
affirm your own sense of dignity by saying deep down in your heart,
"I am somebody. I am somebody. I am somebody because I'm a child
of God. He is my father, and he loves all of his children, and if I'm
his child, he loves me just as he loves other children." And
maintain a continuing sense of dignity, and never become a slave in
You see, one can be mentally free while physically enslaved. I've
never been on the back of the bus. I came up in Atlanta, Georgia.
I went to school on the other side of town. There was only one
[Negro] high school in Atlanta. I never will forget the experiences
that I had, a city of almost 200,000 Negroes, and they only had one
high school at that time, but there's more now. But that was back in
1942 and 3 and 4. I remember every day having to ride
the buses from one side of town to the other to get to school. Those
buses were segregated. We had to sit on the back, but I'm here to
tell you this evening that I never took a seat on the back of the
buses. I was only there physically, but my mind was up on the front.
Always there. And I said to myself at that hour, "One of these days,
my body's going to be up there where my mind is." So let us
'Room in the Inn"
maintain a continuing sense of dignity. Let us never feel that we are
You know the job that Moses confronted when he was trying to lead
the children ot Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land? He had
some people there, and three groups developed. You noticed that.
Many of you, I'm sure have seen the picture of the Ten
Commanidments, and it's there, you can see it in that picture, and
you see it as you read the Bible. Three groups developed, and this is
always a problem in going up freedom's road. You have a certain
group of people who became so conditioned to Egypt. See, you can
become so conditioned to certain things, that you. ..even if you get
to freedom, you'll still act like you used to act. That's possible. You
just become so conditioned. And Moses had that group to deal
with. They wanted to go back to Egypt. They said, now, we prefer
the flush parts of Egypt to being out here in the wilderness, trying
to get to the Promised Land.
You know there are some Negroes like that. They have come to the
point that they just like segregation. They feel that that's just what
they deserve. I was in the Atlanta airport the other day and we
were. ..I was standing there, so there was a little time waiting
between flights. I went in the men's room, and there was a Negro
attendant in there. And I just went on into the room which said
"Men" there. I saw over there they had one that said "Colored,"
that said "Colored Men," but I just decided I was a man, and I
decided I was going in the men's room. I went on in, and this
attendant in there came running to me, and said, "The Colored
room is over there." I didn't pay any attention to him. "Mister, the
Colored room is over there. This is the White room here." So I got
tired of him pushing on me and punching me, and said, "Ah, sir, I'm
all right." Now mark you, the white people in there, it was full of
white people, they hadn't said one thing to me. It was the Negro.
So I stopped and said, "Brother, do you mean to tell me every time
you find it necessary to go to the restroom, you go out of here and
go way over there to the Colored room?" "Well, yes sir. That's where
Now I first reacted with a little bitterness, but then I understood. I
became very sympathetic. That man had come up under the system,
and he had come to believe that Negroes didn't deserve anything
else. There was a place and things were to be separated, and the
system had done that. That's what segregation does. There is the
danger that segregation will give you the sense of inferiority, and so
you feel that this is what you deserve and this is where you belong.
And that's what the Supreme Court decision tried to cure. That's
one of the things that it said, that segregation gives a sense of
inferiority to the segregated. But I am urging you this evening to
maintain a sense of self-respect. That was one group that Moses had
to confront, that group that preferred Egypt to the Promised Land.
Then he had a second group. They were the schoolteachers and the
people who really wanted freedom, but they didn't want to face the
sacrifices that were involved in it. They were always talking about,
"I might lose my job if I try to go on to the Promised Land." Now
they wanted freedom; they wanted it. They wanted freedom. They
wanted to enjoy freedom, but they didn't want to face the sacrifices
involved in gaining freedom. Moses had to deal with that group.
That group of fearful persons. That group of individuals who,
because they were in partially vulnerable positions, they used that
as an excuse for complacency.
Then he had a third group, and that's a group that. ..there's always a
group that carries history on. And he had a group of people who
were willing to go on, in spite of the odds, in spite of the difficulties.
They knew the mountains, the obstacles ahead, but they said,
"We're going on. We're going on with you, Moses. And we are
willing to face anything, because we know that our destiny is in the
"Room in the Inn"
Let us not tit into the group that wanted to go hack to Egypt. Let us
not become a part of that group that is somehow Uving in a state of
fear, afraid to act, accepting things that one does not have to
accept. But let us get in Hne with that third group, and maintain a
continuing sense of self-respect.
Let me rush on to say that we must seek to gain the respect of others
by improving our own standards. I don't want to stay on this too
long, and I know the danger of what I'm about to say, because it can
be misinterpreted. And let me rush on to say that some of our
standards lag behind, we must admit. They lag behind because of
segregation. I'm convinced of that. I think it is a tortuous logic, to
use the tragic effects of segregation as an argument for the
continuation ot it. A man told me in Montgomer^s Alabama, that
integration is all right, but it needs to be put off about 75 years,
because Negroes aren't ready culturally and academically, and
they'll pull the white race back a generation. And my answer to him
was that certainly that isn't true. You can't say that's true of all
Negroes. The second thing is that these conditions exist because of
segregation, and the thing to do is to remove the cause. Don't be
dealing.. .only with the effects, but go on down and remove the
cause. Don't just give an aspirin here, but go on down to the surgical
point and get to the cause of the thing.
But we have to admit, we have to admit that at points our standards
do lag behind. And we need to work on these things, as we work to
remove the cause. We have a dual responsibility. We must work to
remove the basic cause of all of our problems, our economic
insecurity, our cultural lag, our health lag, and all of that. And at
the same time, we must work to improve these effects that have
come into being as a result of segregation. Now we just have to face
it. We kill each other too much. We have to face that. We have to
face that. Our crime rates are still too high. We've got to face that.
And we've got to improve on that. We must face the fact that there
are so many areas and there are so many things that we can do. And
let us start now and sit down by the wayside and pull down the
curtains of our lives, and the shades, and look at ourselves and say,
"Can we improve ourselves here?" Look at the complaints that
many of the white reactionaries have against us, and remove those
that don't make any sense. If they aren't true, well, just push them
aside. They say we want to be integrated because we want to marry
their daughters. Well, we know that isn't true. We know that isn't
true. The Negro's concern basically isn't to be the white man's
brother-in-law, but to be his brother. We know that's true.
But there are other things that are said, and if they are true, let's do
something about it. It our health standards lag behind, let's do
something about them. Oh, it may not be possible for us to take a
flight tomorrow morning and fly over to Paris and buy the most
expensive perfumes, but all of us can be clean. Anybody can buy a
nickel bar of soap....
Let us improve our moral standards. We don't have to have the
highest illegitimacy rate in every city. We don't need to do it. We
don't have to have a Ph.D. ...or an M.A. degree or an A.B. degree.
We don't have to have a lot of money to be good and honest and
moral and upright. We must convince the white man that if we
walk the streets, we're not walking around thinking about sex every
day, for we know that we are made for eternity, created for the
everlasting, born for the stars. That is something deep down within
us that gives us a sense of our own moral integrity and well being.
And where we don't have it, let us improve it. Let us
demand... respect from others by improving our own standards
where they can be improved, so that we deal with this.
And let us continue to gain the ballot, gain political power through
wise use of the ballot. Now I'm not here to tell you how to vote.
That isn't my concern. I'm not a politician. I have no political
ambitions. I don't think the Republican Party is a party full of the
Almighty God, nor is the Democratic Party. They both have
"Room in the Inn"
weaknesses. And I'm not inextricably bound to either party. I'm not
concerned about telling you what party to vote for. But what I'm
saying is this: That we must gain the ballot and use it wisely. I've
come to see recently that one of the most decisive steps that the
Negro can take is that short walk to the voting booth. And don't
put it all on resistance. It's true that in many areas in my state of
Alabama Negroes aren't registered in many instances because they
can't register because the resistance is strong. Because the registrars
refuse to register them. But I don't think that's true in Greensboro,
North Carolina. Many Negroes aren't registered because they're too
lazy to go down and get registered. And you have here, and we have
in many cities all over the South, the opportunity to gain the ballot.
And even where we have strong resistance we have a Civil Rights
Bill, now, which I hope will help us a great deal. So let us go out to
gain the ballot and to use it wisely.
And let us continue to give big money for the cause of freedom.
Integration is not some lavish dish that will be passed out by the
white man on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the
appetite. We've got to do more than that. We've got to sacrifice,
and we're going to have to give some money. The days ahead are
still days of difficulty. We still have a long, long way to go. And let
us use our money wisely. We can't say any longer that we don't have
it. I just mentioned a few minutes ago that we have an annual
income now of almost $17 billion a year. And we get almost
everything else we want. We ride around in some of the biggest cars
that have ever been let loose into history. And I'm not condemning
this. I know how it is. I know... we want to have some of the basic
goods of life. We want to have some of the luxuries of life. But what
I'm saying is, let's maintain a sense of values.
We don't have time to spend a lot of money on whiskey and big
parties and a lot of stuff, and we aren't giving money to the basic
causes that confront us now. It will be an indictment on the Negro
if it is revealed that we spend more money on frivolities than we
spend on the cause of freedom and justice. And I've been in
situations.. .I've seen us in many of our social groups, our fraternities
and our Masonic and our Elks and what have you, spending more
money on frivolities than we spend on the cause of freedom and
justice. I remember one year that a certain fraternity assembled
with other fraternities and spent in one week $500,000 [sic] on
whiskey. That's what the paper reported. Negroes spend more
money in one week, just a handful, in one week than the whole
Negro race spent that whole year for the NAACP and the United
Negro College Fund. Now that's tragic. That's tragic, my friends.
We've got to get a sense of values.
Now you don't like some of these things I'm saying. You're not
saying amen too much right through in here, but I'm saying things
that 1 think are basic for us. Things that are basic. Not only that,
we must continue to develop wise, courageous, and sincere
leadership. This is a need all over the South and all over the nation.
We need leaders who are sincere. Leaders of integrity. Leaders who
are intelligent. Leaders who [avoid] the extremes of hot-
headedness and Uncle Tomism. Leaders who somehow have the
vision to see the issues and have the courage to stand there. Leaders
not in love with money, but in love with humanity. Leaders not in
love with publicity, but in love with justice. Oh, this is the great
need of this hour. As I look out... over our nation, God has given
many of you talent. God has given many of you economic
resources, and he's given you educational resources. And this is the
challenge and an opportunity of the hour to use these things to
furnish leadership for our nation in this hour. Let none of us
become so high on the intellectual, the economic ladder, or any of
these particular ladders, that we become separated from the
problems that the masses of people confront. Let us discover that
we will never get into the Promised Land until all of us get there
'Room in the Inn"
And oh, we need leaders at this hour all over this nation. God, give
us leaders! A time like this demands great leaders. Leaders whom
the lust of office does not kill. Leaders whom the spoils of life
cannot buy. Leaders who have armor. Leaders who will not lie. And
leaders who can stand before [a] demagogue and damn his
treacherous flatteries without winking [sic]. Tall leaders, sun
crowned, who live above the fog in public duty and in private
thinking. That is one of our great needs, as we go on this additional
I'm coming now to the conclusion. But before ending, I want to say
one basic thing to you. Let us, as we move on, continue to struggle
with the weapons of love and nonviolence. We must work
passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship, but let us
not use second-class methods to gain it. That is the danger.
As I look over the long and broad struggle of oppressed people, it
seems to me that there are three ways for oppressed people to deal
with their oppression, and I want to ask you to choose one of them
tonight, and I hope you will choose the right one. One is to rise up
against your oppressor with hate and physical violence, and to break
loose from oppression through armed revolt. This is a method that
we all know about. Those of us who live in America know about it.
It has become something of the inseparable twin of Western
Imperialism. It is even the hallmark of its grandeur. We know about
it. And I'm not here to say to you tonight that victories can't be
won through violence. If a person says that victory has never been
won through violence, he doesn't know history. Nations have
received their independence through violence. I know that. But
that is the problem.
Violence only brings about temporary victories, never permanent
peace. We're coming to see in our world today the futility of
violence, not only in the racial struggle, but in the international
struggle. It is no longer the choice between violence and
nonviolence. It is today nonviolence or nonexistence. In a day
when Sputniks and Explorers dash around outer space, nobody can
win a war. We must come to see now that violence is not the way.
If [the] Negro succumbs to the temptation of using violence in the
struggle, unborn generations would be the recipients of a long and
desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future would
be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. There is still a voice
crying through the vista of time, saying.. .to put up your sword.
History is replete with the bleached bones of nation. The way that
I discussed a little earlier, that is through acquiescence or
resignation. Just resign yourself to the fate of repression. People
have done that. They just accept it, and they resign themselves to
it, and they adjust to it. There again, that isn't the way.
Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is
cooperation with good. And if somehow I accept segregation
without letting the segregator know that I don't like it, I'm
cooperating with him. And I'm just as evil in doing that as he is in
carrying on the system. For the religion says to every man that you
are your brother's keeper. And if I make my brother think that I like
segregation when I don't really like it, if I tell him that I like the
way I'm treated when I don't really like it, I'm not his keeper, for I
cooperate with him in evil. So the way is not to acquiesce and
resign oneself to the fate of oppression.
So we come to a third way, and that is a way of nonviolent
resistance. Where we resist, and yet we do it through nonviolent
means. We stand up with a powerful "no" to injustice, but with a
powerful "yes" to brotherhood and love. It seems to me that this is
the way that all over we must organize, nonviolently, en masse, to
resist the system of segregation, but at the same time we must
maintain love in our hearts, and we must move with the method of
nonviolence. If we will do that, I think we will be able to transform
"Room in the Inn"
a dark night into a glowing daybreak. I think we will be able to
make of this old world a new world. Somehow we must be able to
look our southern brothers in the eye, and those who would
mistreat us, and those who would misuse us, and believe that
unearned suffering is redeeming.
Let us, if it's necessary, be the victims of violence but never the
perpetrators of violence. And then we will be able to stand before
our brothers in the South and say, "We will match your capacity to
inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet
your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we
will still love you. Bum our homes, and we'll still love you. Send
your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the
midnight hours and take us out on some wayside road and beat us
and leave us there, half dead, and we will still love you. Run all
around the country and make it appear that we're not fit morally
and culturally for integration, and we will still love you. Take our
children and spit in their faces and slap them if you may, and we
will still love you." So this, it seems to me, is a way that's open for
And I give you a personal testimony of my own faith. I believe, my
friends, as I leave Greensboro, that we're going, we're going, we're
going to do this. We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.
And then one day we will win our freedom, but not only will we
win our freedom, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience
that we will win you in the process. And our victory will be
"COME BACK, MARTIN LUTHER KING"
C . Eric Lincoln
Professor of Religion and Culture , Duke University
Delivered at the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel
January 18, 1981
wo hundred years ago, the American founding fathers gave to
the world "a new nation, conceived in Uberty, and dedicated to
^the proposition that all men are created equal." They also laid
it down in the record of establishment that every man was endowed
by his Creator with certain "inalienable rights," among which were
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Two long centuries have
come, and two long centuries have gone, and we who now stand
trembling in the room they left search frantically for some clue that
the legacy bequeathed to us is possible of social and political
In our confusion and our doubt we may be cheered from time to
time by the recollection that we had our beginnings in a
commitment to a moral and religious perfection rather than in the
pragmatics of politics; and that the pre-eminent American heritage
is the errand into the wilderness which brought the courage and the
zeal and the ethic of Protestantism to the bleak shores of
Massachusetts Bay; and that while the Protestant commitment did
indeed embrace the notion of empire, what they had intended was
a righteous empire - a city to be set on a hill, as it were, to be the
model of faith and practice for all men and all time to come. So
pervasive and so enduring has been this notion of American
religious and moral manifest destiny that fully 300 years after it was
first voiced, an American President, Mr. Woodrow Wilson, could
announce without a trace of a blush that "America was born a
Christian nation for the purpose of exemplifying to the nations of
the world the principles of righteousness found in the word of God."
Today we are somewhat less certain and we have sufficient reason to
be. As we move on into the third century of our nationhood "under
God," the drums of celebration are muted, and the banners
proclaiming our national greatness hang limp for want of a fair
breeze of conviction. The sober-minded turn to introspection and
those who believe in the righteousness of God tremble in the
anticipation of his justice.
We ask ourselves: What happened to the promise that was
America? Seldom indeed in the annals of human history has a
nation been born under such auspicious circumstances, with so
many mature and able statesmen attending her birth. Never before
in modern times has a nation been so certain of the sure hand of
God on the tiller of its destiny, or committed itself so irrevocably to
divine hegemony and precept. And never has any nation found
itself in such wretched default of its own avowed principles before
the words of our founding document were fairly formed, or the ink
was dry on the parchment. And therein lies the genesis of our
continuing dilemma, or national sickness.
"Come Back, Martin Luther King"
We have been talking about the symptoms of a disease and not the
disease itself. We know too well the cultural nostrums with which
we have dosed ourselves against the painful recognition of how sick
we really are. We have demeaned intelligence and prostituted
communication in tacit avoidance of the issue we recognize to be
the root cause ot our national malaise. It is time now to face the
issue squarely, confront the truth and be cleansed of the pollution of
In the language of the faith we claim to cherish, America has sinned
- mightily, consistently, and with conscious deliberation. Our
cardinal sin is idolatry - corporate racial idolatry'. This is our
national disease. And from this malignancy there oozes a corruption
which poisons everything it touches: the schools, the churches, the
courts, the military, the places where we work, the communities
where we live, our politics, our economics - every level of social and
personal intercourse. Racism is our common sickness and our
common legacy. It is endemic to the culture and so pervasive that
there are no islands of immunity, or varying degrees of malignancy.
The congenital pus that infects the one of us affects the other.
Everyday of our lives we must deal with hate and with the hate that
hate produced. Every hour of the day we are conditioned by fear
that produces fear that produces fear, our mutual hatred and our
mutual fear our common resort to somehow be vindicated by some
divine substantiation, the shadowy myths we have elected to live
by. Yet, we know in our hearts that God will not be mocked, even
as we know that in the deliberate disregard of the implications of
our brotherhood we reject the implications of his common
fatherhood. The wanton distortion of history, the arbitrary
devaluation of human life, the cheap retreat from spiritual and
political responsibility create no options for divine rescue. They do
invite God's scrutiny and God's judgment.
Racism is our shibboleth. It is the sign and symbol by which we are
known and remembered around the world for this civilization
cursed itself long before it became a nation. The white men and
women who founded it with such high purpose let that purpose be
demeaned by the enslavement of those black men and women
called to maintain and develop what they had founded. Clearly, no
Christian community worthy of the name can be built on the
bondage and oppression of one brother by another, whether with
chains or whether with laws; or whether with the fetters of
ignorance, mysteries of doctrine, the logic of power. So it was that
the political experiment in the West addressed itself to failure
before it was scarcely begun. But God is gracious and though man
is weak he is still the subject of God's love and redemption. Man is
a creature of free will, and if he is able to make the conscious
decisions which promote evil then he can make a conscious
decision to undo that evil. God will not have it any other way. Man
cannot have it any other way.
Three times since this land was first cursed by man's refusal to face
his Father and acknowledge his brother, an historic occasion to
relent, to repent and accept redemption, has been granted to
America. The first was at the very birth of the nation, the
bicentennial of which has but recently consigned itself to history.
At the birth of this nation the statesmen were both eloquent and
profuse in their denouncements of the British King for allegedly
forcing upon the colonies that peculiar institution they so readily
elected to take with them into nationhood. The choice ought to
have been to use the occasion of newly won autonomy to gratefully
restore their own integrity, so willfully compromised for 150 years,
by restoring freedom and dignity to the captives they held
enthralled. The insistent rhetoric about liberty and freedom and
justice, and the pious commitment to nationhood under God, rang
hollow against the pitiful cries of the slaves whose freedom never
reached the agenda of deliberation.
"Come Back, Martin Luther King"
White men, Black men fought and died
That all men might be free
But when the fighting was all done
And when the victory was won
Who gained the jubilee?
Who gained the jubilee?
The whites who lived
The blacks who died
Were set at liberty.
Thus did this nation repudiate an extraordinary opportunity to
cleanse itself and get on with the business of a righteous empire in
the West. And thus did the nation indulge at the outset a delusion
which has remained for it a continumg dilemma - the fantasy that
a Christian democracy can rest securely on a doctrine of equality
and the practice of inequality - by race; a doctrine patently in
contradiction to itself, and to every^ recognized principle ot human
The Civil War was fought mainly over issues tangential to what had
finally come to be recognized as the problem most critical to
American peace and prosperity, the continuance of human slavery.
But the Civil War represented a second national occasion for the
reconstruction of the American understanding of a right
relationship to God and man, and the institutionalization of
appropriate attitudes and behavior. Again, we defaulted. The war
was fought; the slaves were freed: the mentality that made slavery
possible remained intact. In time it would spread, adapting itself to
new requirements of respectability. The mentality itself had never
been restricted to any single region of the country, although its
expression and its intensity did vary with the economic and social
requirements of those who harboured it. It was a way of seeing
things; a perspective on reality; a world view parochialized by an
inordinate preoccupation with the accidents of color. A hundred
years later, in a spasm of fear and outrage the cosmetics of
respectability would, for an ugly and perilous interlude, be
forgotten, and "civilized America would be turned back toward a
state of nature." We could have anticipated the seizure and prepared
for it. Instead, we prepared to deal with the symptoms instead of the
disease, as we have always been wont to do.
At about the time the staging for the World War II holocaust was
being completed and the players had taken their stations behind the
doubtful curtain of international diplomacy, perhaps, with some
premonition of how changed the world would be when the war was
over, America had become increasingly apprehensive about how
well or how ill we were managing our moral and political
contradictions at home. Accordingly, we called in Gunnar Myrdal,
a respected social scientist from Sweden, who after several years of
reading the statistics and scouting the country to observe the
American way first hand, advised us in a lengthy compendium that
America had a problem. He called it the "Negro problem." The
problem created a dilemma. He called it the "American dilemma,"
and this is what he said about it:
The American Negro problem is a problem in the heart
of America.... It is there that the decisive struggle goes
on... "The American Dilemma".... is the ever- raging
conflict between. ..the valuations (of)... the American
creed," where the American thinks, talks and acts under
the influence of high national and Christian precepts,
and on the other hand the valuations on specific planes
of individual and group living. Where personal and local
interests, economic, social and sexual jealousies... and all
sorts of miscellaneous wants, impulses and habits
dominate his outlook.
"Come Back, Martin Luther King"
This "problem in the heart of America" is no less persistent now
than when Myrdal set out to document it thirty years ago. It may be
less obvious and therefore less imperative, but its effects on all
classes of Americans remain the same. Perhaps from the pragmatic
perspective of the social sciences, it is indeed a "Negro problem," as
Myrdal declared it to be, but it has always seemed to me to be rather
a problem ot moral and social deficiencies in the ability to assess
realistically the value of the self, and to relate that assessment to an
adequate valuation of others. The derivative dilemma is the
inconsistency between the criteria of valuation, and the
irreconcilability of what we claim to be and what we are.
In any case, Dr. Myrdal told us little we did not know already. In
the final analysis, his documentation of the American dilemma,
like many other "studies" of American behavior, had principally a
cathartic effect - born of the age-old illusion that in studying the
problem we had done something about it.
In the aftermath of war many of the conventions the world had
lived by were suddenly obsolete. In Africa, in colonial Asia, in the
United States, there was revolutionary spirit abroad which
threatened to delay indefinitely the return to normalcy and business
as usual. The world as it was before the Hitlerian era would never
be reconstructed. For us at home, the possibility that the blood we
left on the beaches of Europe and the atolls of the Pacific would be
replicated on the streets of New York and Chicago and Atlanta
became the pre-eminent concern of the guardians of the
establishment. The military was alerted; the federal agencies of
intelligence and investigation were staked-out among the citizens.
New "reception centers" were secretly prepared for the disaffected;
and an amazing array of mobile armor and sophisticated weaponry
was purchased at great cost by the local governments to use against
some mysterious "enemy" who was never identified. We were all on
the way to a solution of the problem by the only means in which we
seem to have confidence - extermination. If it worked against the
Indians, why wouldn't it settle the "Negro problem" once and for
It was at this juncture that for the third time in our national
existence Divine Providence offered a way out - a higher way in
perfect consonance with all our professions of Christian love and
brotherhood in a just and humane society. From the legions of the
disinherited God raised a prophet, a black man, who had known the
jackboot of oppression, but whose chosen response was a gospel of
love. He was a lowly man, humble, but full of hope; sagacious, but
full of dreams - dreams for the future of America, the country he
loved and longed to see put right. His name was Martin Luther
King, Jr. He came teaching peace, preaching forgiveness, and
showing by precept his own full commitment to all he asked
America to do. He came neither to the Jews, nor yet to the Gentiles
but to all who stand in the fear of judgment, saying, "This is the
way." Wherever he went those who had reached the end of their
endurance found new strength; and those who had so lately given
themselves to violence on behalf of their country laid down their
arms and occupied the violence heaped upon them at the hands of
their countrymen. In simple faith and hope and prayer they
sustained each other, those who abused them were confounded by
the peace they knew as they offered their bodies to be brutalized,
and their lives to be a symbol of their determination that men
among men should be men, and so received. Black and white they
were. Men and women of all faiths bound by the common faith that
"we shall overcome." And so they marched 'til convulsed by the
enormity of their own behavior, the agents of the prevailing social
sentiment finally leashed their attack dogs, sheathed their electric
cattle prods, turned in their riot guns and retired from public view.
The tragedy is, the continuing dilemma is, that neither the agents
of the law nor the principals they represented have ever retired
"Come Back, Martin Luther King"
from the conviction that whoever is black is an interloper in a
world intended to he white. Yet, the social conventions which had
for so long demeaned and [compromised] the dignity of black
people had been publicly shattered and broken in the dust. Black
and white together, one unity of believers in the fatherhood of God
and the brotherhood of man, had brought America, first kicking
and screaming, and finally in a sullen compliance to the ver>' edge
of the fountain of redemption. But America has always balked at
the final moment of truth about racial matters. Once again, she saw
the waters and drank not thereof.
We did not overcome. We have not overcome.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead, a target of hatred he struggled to
displace with love, a statistic of violence he tried to teach America
to abjure. His memory is enshrined in the hearts of all those
touched by his sacrifice and encouraged by his dream, but his
doctrine has already faded from the working agendas o( social
change. He stands to be relegated in time to the category of a "great
Negro leader," and given his assigned place in the doubtful
Parthenon of "Negro achievement." This is America's highest
tribute to her sons and daughters who are black. That is the only
recognition America knows how to give. But how different from
what Martin Luther King, Jr. gave to America - the
unconditioned, unrestricted opportunity to redeem itself, to
regenerate itself, to free itself finally of the enormous burden of
living a lie, in conflict with its own ideals.
The wheel turns, and we move on down the road toward a fate that
is predictable. The minions we pay to preserve our narcosis beguile
us with examples of progress and statistics of achievement, all safely
within the parameters of pre-determined change. But in the streets
is the sound and the fury of the status quo ante, and in the faces of
people we see the old hatreds, the old doubts, the old
determinations. And we know intuitively as we know experientially
that the only real change is the date on the calendar.
Hear the words of Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of
Notre Dame, as he comments on the status of our national
The fast pace of progress in the sixties was slowed in the
seventies.... New banners of ethnicity were waved;
idealism was replaced by political pragmatism; leaders
followed instead of leading; the slowdown and the
slipback began, led by the most powerful officials in the
land.... We have come down from a high peak in our
history and are presently in a valley.... Yet, with all the
burden of ingrained prejudice and hatred, I believe that
our age more than any age, knows that this is wrong.
Yes, we know. And in knowing we have abused the patience of God
even as we have ignored the lessons of history. How long? How long
can a nation deceive itself? I hear the litanies of peace, but peace is
far from us. The theologies of hope abound, but any theology not
addressed to the relevant, critical experiences of the people is an
irreverent shimmer of tinsel that demeans the holy event. What is
our hope? What is our promise? The people wait in doubt and
confusion for lack of some clarifying word, some hope for a change
that is real.
We turn again to the memory of Martin Luther King, whose life was
itself the clearest expression of what America claimed to be but
never was. We look again at the America he knew and the America
he dreamed about, and because we share his dreams we wish that
somehow he could be here now, alas! not to see those dreams
fulfilled, for that is a long way off, but to bring us together again and
to revive us in the continuing struggle toward the realization of
what he dreamed about.
"Come Back, Martin Luther King"
Come back, Martin Luther King
Pray with me, and hold my hand
and help me still
the agitation that shakes me
when 1 walk the streets
where once you drew your
O see how quickly there
the people have forgot.
Do you hear
the mothers in the street?
Burn the buses!
Kill the niggers!
Come back, Martin Luther King
And teach us
as once you taught us
as once you taught us
For we are not assured.
The friends we used to know
have long since quit the scene
the responsible people
the proper Bostonians
whose names gild the log
of the Mayflower
are silent and remote
in retirement from the cause.
Who marched with you
Keep to their tents
Nor are their voices raised
to quiet the weary tumult
and give the people
from the strife.
Come back, Martin Luther King
the famous churches
the great cathedrals
that once seized your public
to gild their own pretensions
are shuttered for want of a cause
for want of a voice.
Come back, Martin Luther King
The dreamers you left with your
Wake not to the task of
The dream languishes
The cock crows
1 hear the tolling of bells
There is no sound of trumpets!
When shall we overcome?
When shall we overcome?
'Gunnar, Mydral, An American Dilemma, New York, 1962, p. 71.
-The Hum^ine Imperative, New Haven, 1974.